In Depth

People In Film | Bill Murray

Bill Murray | Executive Decision

In HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, Bill Murray plays President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during a special weekend in 1939. King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) have come to Hyde Park, NY to curry political favor with an America that had come to resent its motherland. In his country estate in Hyde Park, Roosevelt and wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams), their immediate family, their staff and Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), with whom the President has developed a special relationship, stand ready to greet the British royalty on their first trip to America. It’s a weekend during which the direction of modern history will be steered, so, for many, it might appear strange that the great American president should be played by an actor best known for his comedy. But both collaborators and critics are quick to realize how perfect Murray is for the part. On set, Murray proved to be a charismatic leader. “Acting with Bill Murray was a dream come true,” remembers Olivia Colman. It was hard to miss how Murray and Roosevelt shared many personal qualities. “People adored FDR’s wit, kindness, and generosity, and that seemed to fit rather nicely with Bill,” Colman adds. Producer David Aukin recalls, “When I went out with Bill, he was greeted wherever he went. People are so affectionate towards him, because he’s given so much pleasure in so many films to so many people.” Critics were equally convinced. For Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter, “It takes a few minutes to get used to, but once he settles into the role of the 32nd president, the idiosyncratic comic actor does a wonderfully jaunty job.” When looking over his career, it seems clear that this “idiosyncratic comic actor” has done a remarkable job with pretty much everything he has set his mind to.

Bill Murray | A Comic from Chicago

Bill Murray in 1973 with Second City

Born to working-class Irish Catholic parents in 1950 in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Illinois, Bill Murray might have easily gotten lost in the crowd. He was the fifth of nine kids. And although his natural brightness set him apart, he arrived at acting only after a number of other uncertain career trajectories, including an abandoned attempt at pre-med. Even his forays into entertainment were less fueled by showbiz fever than by adolescent hormones. For example, as a teen, he decided to audition for a dance performance mostly because it was the one high school event that incorporated girls in his all-boy Catholic school. Meanwhile, Murray was honing his comic sensibility by just learning to observe the world around him. He confided to The Guardian that caddying at the local golf course taught him about humor: “It was my first glimpse of comedy. When you see grown men near to tears because they've missed hitting a little white ball into a hole from three feet, it makes you laugh." Some of these experiences made their way into his 1980 golf comedy Caddyshack (co-written by his brother Brian Doyle-Murray). But his brother Brian, who’d joined up with Chicago’s Second City, also helped bring Murray into show business by introducing him to his collaborators. At his brother’s house, as Murray told Rolling Stone, “I met Harold Ramis and John Belushi ….They thought I was a riot—weekend hippie.” In 1973, Murray joined Second City, and then two years later he moved with other Second City performers, including John Belushi, Ramis, and his brother Brian, to New York for the National Lampoon Radio Hour. And while he did not join Saturday Night Live for the first year, he was soon part of the famed live TV show that quickly became America’s preeminent testing ground for comic talent.

Bill Murray | From Sketch to Screen

While Bill Murray’s comic icon status was secured by his participation in SNL, his rise to being a movie star had more to do with Second City and The National Lampoon Show. There, his collaboration with writer/ director Harold Ramis led him to many of his early film successes. Having met him in Chicago doing Second City, Ramis turned to Murray often. As Ramis later confided to Mike Sacks, “I always tell students to identify the most talented person in the room, and, if it isn’t you, go stand next to him. That’s what I did with Bill. I met him when he was really young – in his early twenties.” Ramis’ second screenplay, Meatballs, was Murray’s first major film role. In his directorial debut, Caddyshack, (which Ramis wrote from an idea by Murray’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray), Ramis let Murray’s improv skills shine. The two reunited again for Stripes in 1981. And several years later, Ramis co-wrote Ghostbusters from an idea from Dan Akyroyd. And while the part of Peter Venkman was not originally written for Murray, the character and actor quickly became indistinguishable. Time’s Richard Schickel noted that Murray, “obviously (and wisely) regards Dr. Peter Venkman as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop fully his patented comic character,” one that is “Shrewd and stupid, sly and blustering, but always coolly gliding to some strong rhythm only he can hear.” Indeed in the 80s, Murray became a comic juggernaut, careening from one box-office comedy hit to the next. But while Murray seemed to be the king of broad, buffoonish comedy, there was always something else happening just beneath the surface.

Bill Murray | A Serious Side

In the 90s, as Murray was on the rise as America’s favorite funnyman, he started to turn his talent to serious ends. Right before making the comedy Ghostbusters, Murray was cast to star in John Byrum’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s moving tale of one man’s search for spiritual meaning, The Razor’s Edge. No doubt, half of Murray’s job (in addition to starring in and co-writing the film) was dealing with the public’s incredulity. "I suppose many people might think I never have a serious thought in my head,” Murray confided to US Magazine. “I'm pretty contrary to that zany image. Mostly, I'm thinking about serious stuff - a lot of it spiritual. … I can be gregarious. I can be a loner. I can go both ways.” While Murray would often take the comedy way, in future films he brilliantly blended both his comic and serious side, almost to the point it was impossible to say which was which. In Michael Almereyda’s 2000 futuristic adaptation of Hamlet, Murray plays the plodding and pompous Polonius in way that was both familiar and revelatory. As the New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell observed, “Mr. Murray takes the bemused hollowness he first discovered in sketch comedy and gives it a worn, saddened undercurrent; it's what those bullying cynics he plays in comedies would be like in real life after about 20 years.” As the alcoholic ventriloquist who argues politics with his dummy in Tim Robbins' Depression-era showcase Cradle Will Rock, Murray again used his vaudevillian persona to find the magic spot where comedy and tragedy meet.

Bill Murray | Seriously Funny


In 1993, Murray found the perfect vehicle for his unique comic talents in Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day, a high-concept film about a Pennsylvanian weatherman forced to relive the same day that moves magically between punchline and philosophy, and back again. Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss describes how in this film “Murray had refined his amiable doofus into the minimalist modern man: his posture a question mark, his face a concrete poem of anticipated disappointment.” Over the next decades, Murray further honed his talent for creating comic figures whose humor never comes at the cost of his humanity. In fact, Murray created characters whose humor emerged as their humanity (the pathos and sadness, dreams and desires) slowly rises to the surface. In Wes Anderson’s 1998 Rushmore, Murray layered his character, Blume, with a complicated range of emotions that made him neither a hero, nor villain, nor victim, nor aggressor. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “It's safe to say that Murray has one of the most emotionally layered deadpans of the century. To look at him is to recognize in Blume a fellow who, at his age, becomes lovesick and pathetic. He knows it and is sad about it, and yet sees the humor in his own sorry spectacle.” In Sofia Coppola’s 2003 LOST IN TRANSLATION, Murray plays a middle-aged movie star who flies to Tokyo for very profitable commercial work, a character who appears, on the surface, to be very like Murray himself. For Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, “Murray is often funny here — his lines loop around us, their unwitting victims, like licorice whips. But he also shows us a range of feelings that we immediately recognize, among them lovesickness, bewilderment, self-deprecating resignation — such feelings are, after all, universal. But Murray makes them feel new and raw.”  And he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his moving performance.

Bill Murray | Cinematic Collaborator

After Jim Jarmusch worked with Murray for the “Delirium” section of Coffee and Cigarettes, he so loved what Bill Murray did that he wanted to create a bigger role for the actor. “He's always had that balance of mischief and melancholy - that's Bill Murray,” Jarmusch told Talk Talk. “It's that very rare thing he has. So I kind of wanted to create something that could give a little more weight to that other side of his abilities as an actor.” That something turned into the character of Don Johnston in Jarmusch’s 2005 BROKEN FLOWERS, a worn-out lothario who takes a trip through time by crossing the country revisiting all of his past relationships. Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum immediately got the connection between director and actor here: “The bebop cadences of actor Bill Murray and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch are in such key-of-cool sync in the deadpan-tender who's-your-daddy drama BROKEN FLOWERS, it's a wonder that the two hipster silverheads haven't jammed together more often.”  Like with Wes Anderson, and Harold Ramis before him, Jarmush found in Murray a perfect extension of his own comic sensibility. And the two soon teamed again for Jarmusch’s oddball thriller THE LIMITS OF CONTROL. But as loyal as Murray is to his collaborator, he’s also not interested in being a company man. In the 90s, at the height of his success, he did away with his agent and manager, providing people who wanted to work with him simply an 800-number and an answering machine on which to leave their pitches. As he told Entertainment Weekly, “Life is really hard, and it's the only one you have. I mean, I like doing what I do, and I know I'm supposed to do it, but I don't have anything to bring to it if I don't live my life.” That unique way of doing things makes Murray a singular talent.  For Anderson, Murray’s “the one that I'm most likely to describe as a genius…His thought process is something I can't quite put my finger on at all. A sentence will come out of his mouth that's just the last thing I expect, and I don't quite understand until I think about it for a minute.”

Bill Murray | Wes Anderson's Pep Captain

Since his appearance in Rushmore, Bill Murray has become synonymous with Wes Anderson films, appearing in either minor or major roles in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. In MOONRISE KINGDOM, Murray plays the lawyer Mr. Bishop, who, along with his wife (and fellow lawyer) Mrs. Bishop (Frances McDormand), is pushed into being a parent when their daughter Suzy (Kara Hayward) runs off with local Khaki scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman). For Murray, joining up with Anderson’s production was made easy by the material and talent. “It’s a really fine script,” he enthused. “There is an electricity that moves through it; Roman [Coppola] and Wes are really wonderful together.” And Murray also has nothing but praise for the production itself. “It’s a beautiful set, with all its handmade work,” Bill Murray remarked admiringly. “It’s one of the nicest ones I’ve worked in. The crew spent a lot of time making it feel authentic – how a house gets decorated by the first person who lives there, and then later you’re sort of stuck with it – so we could feel authentic when we were acting.” For others on the film, it was Murray’s enthusiasm that fueled MOONRISE KINGDOM. Producer Jeremy Dawson noted, “Bill keeps us all going; he’s our pep captain.” And while Murray is not the star of MOONRISE KINGDOM, his presence lends a sense of reassurance to all. As the Chicago Tribune notes in their rave review, “Bill Murray, who (thank heavens) has been in every Anderson film since Rushmore, plays the father.”


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